I just left a country (Southern Sudan) where there is very little food. In the parlance of development talk, it is called food insecurity. What it means is that not only do most people not know where their next meal is coming from, they plan to eat every other day. There is no way to store food and certainly no refrigeration. Sometimes, just to get water, a woman might walk miles. During the rainy season food grows, but if there is an infestation of insects, there is no hope to grow other food. It is a bleak hand-to-mouth existence.
While I was in Southern Sudan, one nongovernment organization, or NGO, was awaiting shipment of a “donation” from an American drug company. This “donation” was going to consist of almost expired medication for high blood pressure. It was a win for donors. They get to take a huge tax deduction, but for the locals it doesn’t mean a whole lot. High blood pressure is not a disease that is a problem in Southern Sudan. “It is a disease of the West,” the area physician told me.
The reason high blood pressure is rare in Southen Sudan is because people walk almost everywhere and food is scarce. It is extremely rare to see anyone overweight. Coming back to the United States and walking though the Capitol on Wednesday, I saw overweight and even obese high school-aged tourists. It wasn’t just a few of them, either. Many of these teenagers were large, and it was obvious that walking was not their favorite pastime.
It is with this knowledge that Mrs. Obama has decided to combat childhood obesity. She has taken this up in a methodical and careful way that shows her years of legal training. It has not been just a couple of photo ops in her vegetable garden. She has worked with major groups to put obesity on the table.
Using the bully pulpit of the first lady, Michele Obama has met with scientists and physicians and has made sure that everything that happens at the White House reflects her concerns.
Today’s Easter Egg Roll is just one example. There has sometimes been a focus on health at the egg roll. One year, Laura Bush had a booth where visitors could get a read of their Body Mass Index.
This year the entire theme is based on Mrs. Obama’s concerns about child obesity.
The White House went all out to make sure that the point was not lost on the visitors or the media.
The egg roll is themed “Ready, Set, Go!” to dovetail with Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” national initiative.
In addition to the normal egg hunt, egg roll and story reading, this year the White House has
added sports zones including obstacle courses, a “hop to it” dance center, a “play with your food” area including information on how to make your own garden, and a yoga garden to get kids moving their bodies. Everyone from NFL players to former tennis star Billie Jean King will be organizing games for the children.
Later this week Mrs. Obama is going to host C-Span at the White House to allow student
journalists to cover an event focusing on the obesity problem. On Friday she will
have a White House meeting to discuss ways to combat this growing health epidemic. This
meeting is going to focus on trends, how to empower parents and how to access healthy,
affordable food. Mrs. Obama’s work is a critical part of health care. The statistics are not
pretty. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimates that between
16 and 33 percent of children and adolescents are obese and that unhealthy weight gain
due to poor diet and lack of exercise is responsible for more than 300,000 deaths each year.
They estimate that the annual health care cost due to obesity is about $100 billion a year. That dollar figure would go a long way to provide health care for millions of children in the U.S. and make a huge difference in the overall cost of health care.
My old boss used to say that America had grown “fat, dumb and happy.” We certainly are
a lot happier than the people living on the edge of poverty and hunger in Sudan, but we have
grown a lot fatter, and our food policy for children is just plain dumb.